Water based polyurethane vs oil based:Which is better for refinishing?

Home Builder with The Flooring Girl

Westchest hardwood flooring - oil based polyurethane

Which type of polyurethane is better for refinishing hardwood floors - water-based or oil-based polyurethane?

We offer both options, but I strongly prefer oil based poly over water based because:

1.  It looks better

2.  It lasts longer

3.  It costs less.

So, it seems like a no brainer, right?  Well, usually it is a simple decision, but there certainly are some exceptions and different customers have different needs.

So, let's delve in a bit further.

Benefits of oil-based polyurethane.

1.  Oil based polyurethane looks better.  It has a more depth - both in color and shine and it looks the way we expect hardwood to look.  Water based polyurethane has both a duller color and a duller finish.  I wish I had some good pictures to demonstrate, so instead I'm going to link to the trusted authority in hardwood from the National Wood Floor Association water based poly vs. oil based pictures on domestic wood species.

Hardwood floors westchester NYPlease check out the above link and you'll see how different the colors look - the water-based polyurethane in on the upper left; the oil based poly on the lower right.  It's pretty dramatic.  The other issue when it comes to appearance is that over time the polyurethane amberizes and darkens a bit...usually giving it a richer look while the water based poly just continues to get duller over time.

2.  Oil based polyurethane lasts longer than water based.  There is no contest on the durability between the 2 options.  Water based polyurethane has lower VOC's - which is a bit of an environmental benefit (more about that in a moment) - but because it has lower VOC's (Volatile Organic Compounds), it doesn't last as long.  Water based poly is thinner, and you often need 4-5 coats to equal the durability of 3 coats of oil based.

While I do not have detailed analytical studies, most customers who call me to refinish their floors and previously had water based poly, call me after 5-6 yrs vs. most customers that call me to refinish their oil based polyurethane call me at around the 10 yr mark.  And, at those points in time, the water based poly looks way worse than the oil based - in fact, it's usually peeling off and the hardwood is starting to look gray.  What' s also interesting is that almost all of my customers who have had water based polyurethane tell me they would NEVER do it again.  They felt mislead by their previous flooring contractor.  While sanding and refinishing is not terribly expensive, it can be rather inconvenient if you live in the home.  You need to move all the furniture out and often go away for a week.  So, if you're going to go though the hassle of refinishing your floors, I recommend doing it right so it last longer.

red oak hardwood flooring westchester NY3.  Oil based polyurethane cost less than water based.  The water-based material is more expensive, so often you will pay around 10-25% more.  But, on top of the initial cost, you also need to consider that you will need to redo the whole job sooner...you will probably redo them almost twice as often.

Now, there are several benefits to water based polyurethane and in some circumstances, water based poly is a great option.

Benefits of water based polyurethane:

1.  Water based polyurethane dries faster.  In my opinion, this is the largest benefit of water based polyurethane.  Usually, water based jobs can be done in 2 cays and you can walk on it that night where as oil based can take 3-5 days (pending on humidity) and you need to wait at least 24 hrs before walking on them. This option can really make sense for commercial businesses such as restaurants or stores as longer drying time means the store is closed, and there is a true business cost to that.  But, for regular homeowners, usually, it's worth waiting the extra 2-3 days in order to have the job last longer.

oak plank flooring westchester NYI have many customers who are in a rush to move into their new home, but I always recommend that it's worth delaying move in by a few days and get their floors done right.  If they don't, they will spend more time and money paying for this later.  For customers already living in their home, I recommend that they do this while they will be away for a while. I would rather wait 6 months for their next trip and have them pay less and do it right with oil based.  Why do I feel this way?  Because they will be happier and save money, and I rely on happy customers who recommend me to their friends and come back to me years later for the other flooring in their home.

2.  Water based polyurethane doesn't smell as bad.  Because of this, many co-ops are now requiring their homeowners to use water based poly.  I think this is a bit of a shame, but I understand it due to all the neighbors.  For regular stand alone home, it will not make much of a difference to your neighbors, and I will also point out that both water based and oil based poly smell, and I still recommend that customers go away or stay somewhere else while this work is being done.

3.  Water based polyurethane is a bit better for the environment...but it does depends on how you look at it.  Since water based polyurethane has lower VOC's (Volatile Organic Compounds), it is a bit better for the environment.  As mentioned above, the VOC's are lower not non-existent.  And, importantly, this environmental benefit only has an impact during the DRYING time.  Once the poly is dry, there is no difference in smell, off-gassing, etc.  And, yes, I did validate this with the manufacturer - and they offer both water and oil based (and they make more money on the water based so they have no reason to mislead here).

Now, the skeptical New Yorker in me always sees both sides of the equation, so I will point out that while water based is a bit better for the environment, remember that it doesn't last as long and the floors will need to be redone in a few year, thereby prob. eliminating that benefit and furthermore, leading to an ultimately earlier demise of the wood which in turn will result in more cut trees, so everything has a flip side.

So, in most circumstances, I believe that oil based polyurethane is a better option vs. water based polyurethane for refinishing your hardwood floors.


Comments (70)

Tina Gleisner
Home Tips for Women - Portsmouth, NH
Home Tips for Women

But Debbie, if you need 5 coats of water based ply versus 3 coats of oil, added up they might be equal with respect to VOCs?

Feb 05, 2012 06:09 AM
Debbie Gartner
The Flooring Girl - White Plains, NY
The Flooring Girl & Blog Stylist -Dynamo Marketers

Charles - that is great.  You should be set for a long time.

Jeremy - that is so cool you found it on twitter.

Tina - Yes, adding more with water based will help, but that will certainly drive up the cost even more as well as the time elapsed so there's not much of a benefit.  Also you need to screen on the additional coats so there would be more dust.  The price would prob. be about double in this case vs. oil and it will still look much duller.

Feb 05, 2012 08:10 AM
Anne M. Costello
Weidel Realtors - Yardley, PA

Debbie: I just saw this from Kristine's reblog. I think I missed it on Thanksgiving. Don't know how that happened. LOL What an amazing post. You really considered everything. With all the hassle of getting the work done, the lower cost and to me, the better look, I would have to agree that oil would be the way to go. 

Feb 24, 2012 05:08 PM
Tom Arstingstall, General Contractor, Dry Rot, Water Damage Sacramento, El Dorado County - (916) 765-5366
Dry Rot and Water Damage www.tromlerconstruction.com Mobile - 916-765-5366 - Placerville, CA
General Contractor, Dry Rot and Water Damage

Saw Kristine's reblog, had to stop in.

This is an awesome post Debbie, I love the clarity of the post.

Great feature!

Feb 24, 2012 05:15 PM
Debbie Gartner
The Flooring Girl - White Plains, NY
The Flooring Girl & Blog Stylist -Dynamo Marketers

Anne - Thx so much.  I will also have to go to Kristine and thank her.

Kristine - Thank you so much.  That means so much to me.

Feb 24, 2012 07:38 PM
1~Judi Barrett
Integrity Real Estate Services 116 SE AVE N, Idabel, OK 74745 - Idabel, OK
BS Ed, Integrity Real Estate Services -IDABEL OK

I prefer the oil based also for my floors.  It does seem that oil based changes colors more than water based over time.  It seems to get darker, yellowing.. 

Feb 24, 2012 09:02 PM
Debbie Gartner
The Flooring Girl - White Plains, NY
The Flooring Girl & Blog Stylist -Dynamo Marketers

Judi - Yes, that is true, but usually the amberizing effect looks good not bad.  If you have red oak, there are some underlying pink tones, and the amberizing and darkening tends to diminish the pinkish tones, so most people prefer this.

Feb 24, 2012 09:15 PM
Fred Carver Personal Real Estate Corporation
RE/MAX Camosun Victoria BC Real Estate - Victoria, BC
Accredited Real Estate Consultant

Hi Debbie...Thanks to Judi's Re-Blog I get to read this Great post I missed earlier. Well Done and Congratulations on your feature

Feb 25, 2012 01:26 AM
Curtis Van Carter
Better Homes & Gardens Wine Country Group - Yountville, CA
Your Napa Valley Broker Extraordinaire


Just wanted to thank you for some good info. Found this through Kristine's repost, cheers cvc

Mar 02, 2012 04:09 AM
Sara Homan
Coldwell Banker Ellison Realty 352-209-4044 - Ocala, FL
Realtor, Homes, Farms & 55+

Hi Debbie,  I don't have hardwood floors but would love to, this is good info for when I do.  Thanks.

Apr 28, 2012 11:13 PM
Debbie Gartner
The Flooring Girl - White Plains, NY
The Flooring Girl & Blog Stylist -Dynamo Marketers

Fred - Thx.  I just saw this comment.

Curtis - Thank you so much, and thx for stopping by.

Sara - glad to hear it will come in handy for the future.

Apr 29, 2012 01:25 AM

We had our Maple flooring refinished.  After the first oil/poly coat we had some bubbling on floor in one room.  The finisher came and sanded again and applied another coat of oil/poly.  The result was shiny and brought out the grain, however a few mistakes were made such as puddles of stain, rough spots and grass imbedded in floor.  The finisher came back and said he applied a 3rd coat of oil/poly after sanding.  This coat did not smell at all the next day and was completely dry.  Also there was one bad area where the finish was bubbling and the finish was not shiny anymore on the whole floor.  Does it sound like they put a coat of water based poly over the oil based poly?  Please help, at wittts end!! Thanks. 


Jul 18, 2012 11:43 AM
Debbie Gartner
The Flooring Girl - White Plains, NY
The Flooring Girl & Blog Stylist -Dynamo Marketers

HI Sheila.  Sorry about your woes.  First, let me note that maple floors are much more challenging to refinish than most hardwood and this type of flooring does not accept the stain as well (it's closed grain).  You are supposed to add a conditioner and 2 coats of stain, but even so, it does come out blotchy and that is the nature of the wood.

Second, most likely, the bubbling was caused by not allowing enough drying time between coats (or not stirring properly).

Third, my guess, based on your description is that there is a good chance it was water based on the last coat - it dries faster and doesn't smell as much (it's also thinner).  Usually, the water based will dry in about 4 hrs.  But, it's hard to say for sure.  I would ask them.

Jul 18, 2012 01:03 PM
Donna Foerster
HomeSmart Realty Group - Parker, CO
Metro Denver Real Estate Assistant

Debbie~ We bought our house new and had the hardwoods installed by the builder.  I haven't even given any thought to having the floors refinished, but I imagine we'll have to worry about this very soon.

Aug 03, 2012 09:42 AM
Debbie Reynolds, C21 Platinum Properties
Platinum Properties- (931)771-9070 - Clarksville, TN
The Dedicated Clarksville TN Realtor-(931)320-6730

Hi Debbie, I personally think the water based looks thinner and doesn't enhance the wood as well.

Aug 03, 2012 12:17 PM
Debbie Gartner
The Flooring Girl - White Plains, NY
The Flooring Girl & Blog Stylist -Dynamo Marketers

Donna - Yes, eventually you will.

Debbie - I agree.

Aug 03, 2012 01:37 PM
Vicki Tessendorf

I am going to refinish my maple floors and need to know oil versus water based which one is more resistant against compression scratching from dogs? 

Sep 23, 2012 05:17 AM
Debbie Gartner
The Flooring Girl - White Plains, NY
The Flooring Girl & Blog Stylist -Dynamo Marketers

Vicki - Oil based will resist that more.  But, please bear in mind that maple has light graining, so unfortunately, it shows everything more.  You may want to consider adding an extra coat of poly for protection.  Also, a satin finish will show the scratches and dents less.

Sep 23, 2012 06:42 AM
Catherine C Capasso
Catherine Cornelia Real Estate - Eastchester, NY
Cottage or Castle, What's Your Dream!
I followed the link to the site with the comparison of oil based versus water-based finishes. They also mentioned moisture cured finishes, which are extremely durable. Do you do this type of finish as well?
Dec 26, 2012 09:08 PM
Debbie Gartner
The Flooring Girl - White Plains, NY
The Flooring Girl & Blog Stylist -Dynamo Marketers

Oh gosh, they changed this page on me...it's not linking to the visuals I intended.  I'm going to need to use my own photo instead.  We can do other types, but they generally cost more.

Dec 27, 2012 01:34 AM